As NorthEast United technical advisor and interim coach Avram Grant made his way to the away team bench at the Kanteerava Stadium, Bengaluru on Friday evening, there was a loud roar from the stands.
The primary reason was that the broadcasters had cut to a shot of the players' tunnel on the giant screen, and the fans had seen their first close-up of Bengaluru FC captain Sunil Chhetri. Some of the applause could just have been for the former Chelsea manager, who has also spent time at West Ham United, Portsmouth and with national teams of Ghana and Israel.
Impassive and unmoved, Grant walked on.
What ensued on the pitch for the next 90 minutes was a tight contest, but one where NorthEast never looked like underdogs. Bengaluru were seeking top place in the Indian Super League (ISL) points table, while the visitors have just about kick-started their campaign this year. Grant joined them on January 4, and they have beaten two top-of-the-table teams in FC Goa and Chennaiyin FC since, with Seminlen Doungel registering the first hat-trick in ISL history for the club against the latter.
Grant's NorthEast were not given to flights of fancy -- his fullbacks had their opposite numbers in midfield and attack in their pockets. Reagan Singh gave nothing to Udanta Singh down Bengaluru's right, while Nirmal Chettri ensured Miku or Chhetri rarely got any space to work with across the field. They relied on counterattacks, and had Doungel and Holicharan Narzary run with pace to set up chances for Brazilians Danilo Cezario and Marcinho.
NorthEast's resistance eventually gave way, as they conceded a header off a free-kick to Bengaluru centre-back Juanan. They even had Chhetri on the scoresheet, benefitting from two unfortunate touches from centre-back Samba and Chettri that landed the ball at the Bengaluru captain's feet. This came after NorthEast created their own moment with the tireless Doungel getting Subashish Bose to handle the ball inside the box. Marcinho, by far NorthEast's best foreign player this season, blasted it high into the net to pull NorthEast back into the contest.
"Football -- (he) who scores, wins," was Grant's evaluation of the evening. "We stopped them very well. We went from the sides, but didn't score. We knew they score from a lot of set-pieces. We prepared for this, but sometimes you can prepare, prepare, prepare all you want. They scored a good goal, and we had our chances but could not score. It's not part of the game [plan], but it is part of the game."
Chasing the game, Grant made some bold moves that helped put pressure on the home side. Pulling out Uruguayan defensive midfielder Martin Diaz and Danilo, he brought in strikers Helio Pinto and John Mosquera. Centre-backs Samba and Jose Goncalves pushed ahead and nearly met a few precise passes from an overlapping Chettri. There were swift changes in attacking lines, and some anxious moments before Bengaluru closed the game out.
Through it all, Grant stood along the touchline, no emotion on his face. There was the rare hands on chin and furrowed brows as he mulled the next move, but no sign of agitation at either his team or any of the officiating. He later said he knew it would be a difficult match, and that the only two defeats since he has come to NorthEast -- a 1-0 defeat earlier to ATK and this -- were games they "didn't need to lose" since the other teams were "not better" than them.
"Even if they don't qualify in the standings, they are a positive dynamic," Bengaluru coach Albert Roca said later. "They are a very physical team, with a strong defence. They are a team that don't deserve to be where they are right now. Till the end of the season, they will be much better."
It's a compliment coming from someone who knows his football well, and Grant must know he has turned NorthEast's fortunes around, but perhaps not in time to make the playoffs for the first time. The foundation of what a coach of his stature and experience lays down in the weeks to come could determine the future of the team -- and how ISL franchises look at coaching jobs -- especially going by Friday's gritty display against a well-organised team.
"It was important to eliminate one team (from the race to the playoffs) which will get some points in the next few games, (especially) since Grant came to the team," said Roca, with an audible sigh of relief at overcoming an examination.